COP28 president walks back claim of 'no science' behind need to phase out fossil fuels

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The head of the COP28 climate summit is walking back comments he made last month to the effect that there is “no science” behind the notion that a phase-out of fossil fuels is required to keep Earth’s temperature from rising to more than 1.5 degrees Celcius above preindustrial levels.

“We very much believe and respect the science,” COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber said on Monday. “We fully understand the urgency behind this matter. I have always been very clear on the fact that we are making sure that everything we do is centred around the science.”

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His earlier comments, which he claimed were taken “out of context,” came during a tense exchange with Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and now chair of the Elders Group, an international group devoted to peace, human rights and global sustainability.

Robinson and Jaber were taking part in an online discussion on Nov. 21 that was organized by the international group She Changes Climate. Robinson was questioning Jaber, who is also chief executive of the United Arab Emirates’ state oil company, about that firm’s plans to expand its operations.

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“I accepted to come to this meeting to have a sober and a mature conversation,” Jaber said at one point to her questions. “I’m not in any way signing up to any discussion that is alarmist. I am here factual and I respect the science.”

He continued: “There is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5. One point five is my north star, and a phase-down and a phase-out of fossil fuel in my view is inevitable, it is essential, but we need to be real, serious and pragmatic about it.”

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He then suggested that Robinson could provide answers to the questions she was asking. “Help me,” he said. “Show me the roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable social-economic development unless you want to take the world back into caves.”

He ended the exchange by saying: “I don’t think Mary will be able to help solve the climate problem by pointing fingers or contributing to the polarization and the divide that is already happening in the world. What we need here is solutions. Show me the solutions. Stop point fingers. Show me solutions. Show me what you can do. Show me your own contributions and I will salute you for it. Stop the pointing of fingers. Stop it.”

Condemnation of his remarks came quickly from several directions. Romain Ioualalen of Oil Change International released a statement saying that Jaber’s comments “are alarming and raise deep concerns about the presidency’s capacity to lead the UN climate talks at a time when leadership and a clear vision are most needed.”

Asked to respond to Jaber’s remarks, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said: “That’s not the argument. The G7 countries voted that there should be a phasing out of unmitigated fossil fuel emissions, and what there is science for is keeping 1.5 degrees as your North Star.”

He added: “Every decision we make should be geared to say: Does this advance the 1.5 degrees or is it going to be more destructive and take us in the wrong direction?”

Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore told the Associated Press that the oil company run by Jaber is a major polluter that is “much better at capturing politicians than they are at capturing emissions.”

He said of Jaber: “He’s a nice guy. He’s a smart guy. I’ve known him for years. But he has a direct conflict of interest. And this isn’t some kind of nitpicking complaint. This goes to the heart of whether or not the world is going to have the ability to make intelligent decisions about humanity’s future.”

Climate scientist and activist Bill McGuire was more succinct in his summation of Jaber’s remarks: “Farcical.”

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Meanwhile, a COP28 spokesperson said the controversy was “another attempt to undermine the Presidency’s agenda, which has been clear and transparent and backed by tangible achievements.”

Jaber’s dual role as president of a climate change meeting and head of an oil company has been raising eyebrows since he was named to the position. In an opinion piece in Britain’s Independent newspaper last summer, journalist Anthony Harwood wrote that Jaber’s appointment was akin to “putting a major tobacco manufacturer in charge of an anti-smoking conference.”

With files from The Associated Press

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